Jack Straw: The Survivor
I have a review of Jack Straw’s memoir in The Independent on Sunday. This is one of the last big personal accounts of the New Labour period, assuming that Gordon Brown is not writing his (although it is always possible that Damian McBride, Brown’s former special adviser, might be persuaded to add to his brilliant blog in book form).
There is, of course, a lot more of interest in Straw’s book than could be squeezed into a short review, and, as I praised Straw’s use of footnotes, allow me to use this post to add some of my own.
But first, one more of Straw’s. As well as the one on the Poisson distribution, he has one on the discussion in the Cobra (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) crisis meetings during the fuel protests in 2000 about whether taxis were “priority vehicles” for the purposes of petrol rationing, which was being prepared. “We … concluded not – a decision that was swiftly reversed when it became clear that hospitals had contracted with taxi firms to bring essential staff to work. Later, David Omand [permanent secretary, Home Office] was to discover from the Official Cabinet Office History of the Second World War that our predecessors had debated the same issue in the forties and made the same mistake. Such is the absence of collective memory.”
Straw has a good turn of phrase. When Labour campaigned in the 1987 election against the plan to bring in the poll tax, “We hit another natural law of politics – the law of the incomprehensible hypothetical. Until people actually received a demand through their letter box … they were unmoved by our case.”
And he has a good eye for the turns of phrase of others. Kenneth Baker, Home Secretary 1990-92, said to him: ”Just remember, Jack, as Home Secretary, there’ll be fifty sets of officials working on schemes to undermine your government and destroy your political career; and the worst is, not only will you not know who they are, but neither will they.”
He quotes Donald Rumsfeld, from Rumsfeld’s Rules (1974): “In politics, every day is filled with numerous opportunities for serious error. Enjoy it.”
And FM Cornford, Microcosmographica Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician, 1908: “Every public action which is not customary either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent … It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.”
He has an interesting quotation that I had not seen before from Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary at the time of the first Gulf War, who said in August 1992 that George HW Bush “got it right” when he decided “we were not going to get bogged down in the problem of trying to take over and govern Iraq”.
Although he then goes on to give a solid account of why he supported military action against Saddam Hussein in 2003.
He happily confesses to being “an anorak”: “Engaged on a necessary but tedious task – like swimming forty lengths – I’ll calculate prime numbers in my head.”
There are several unexpected insights into contemporary history. He blames the personal difficulty between Derry Irvine and Donald Dewar (Dewar’s wife left him for Irvine) for allowing Dewar to devolve too much power to Scotland. And he reminds us that Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Conservative spokesman, said of the Human Rights Bill as it completed its passage through the Commons: “We now wish it well.” Straw adds: “It went through without a vote.”
Straw adds of the legislation, for which he was responsible: “The Human Rights Act … will continue to be a key and beneficial part of our constitution for decades, if not centuries, to come.” I doubt it.
But he shares Tony Blair’s view of the Freedom of Information Act, which he tried to curtail without much success against the enthusiasm of David Clark, Cabinet Office minister, and against foolish promises made by Labour in opposition:
The paradox of FoI is that in meeting the insatiable demands of its enthusiasts it has effectively made good decision-making more difficult, and degrading of the historical record more likely. Nor has FoI increased trust in government, as its proponents promised… A more modest Act would not have suppressed, for example, information about MPs’ expenses, but would have supported, not hindered, the operation of good government.
When he left the Home Office, the Private Office “presented me with a self-inking rubber stamp saying ‘WALOB’ (short for ‘what a load of bollocks’)”.
Then Blair offered him the Foreign Office:
“There’s just one thing we do need to get clear if you are going to be Foreign Secretary,” Tony added, once he’d established that I did want the job. “The euro. If Cabinet recommends that we go in, I have to know that you’ll be onside.” …
I’d long believed that the euro was fundamentally flawed. Gordon’s famous “five tests” for us to join had been a great relief to me … I’d never asked Gordon outright; I didn’t need to. It was obvious that since he’d not only set the exam paper but would be sitting it and marking it too, this was the one test of his life he’d be determined to fail. I judged that there was in practice no risk that Gordon would ever bring Cabinet a proposal to join. I nodded assent to Tony, shook his hands and went out, very happy.
Four months later came 9/11 and the start of the road to the invasion of Iraq. Despite supporting Blair in this, Straw lends credence to some of the former Prime Minister’s laziest critics: “One central flaw of our current constitutional arrangements: prime ministers have too much power, for their own good, as well as the country’s,” Straw says. Well, it is a point of view. But he goes on:
Tony’s reputation has suffered because he used informal, “sofa government” methods of decision-making, rather than ensuring that Cabinet (and its Committees) were proper, formal bodies where collective decisions were made. The criticism was justified. Look at Iraq…
This is nonsense, and it is surprising and disappointing that Straw should lend his considerable credibility to it. Fortunately, he argues forcefully against himself. Let us look at Iraq, he says:
The end point of this decision chain was very formal indeed – a resolution of the House of Commons. But it would have been far better – for Tony and his reputation, as well as for good government – if he, and I, and the Defence Secretary, had had to discuss progress with, and seek decisions from, a National Security Council, in turn reporting to Cabinet – and on paper, not by way of oral briefing.
Oral briefings that were preferred, of course, by Straw himself, because of the problem of leaks. But then in the next sentence Straw says: “I am absolutely clear that had these systems been in place, the substantive decisions on Iraq would have been the same.”
In that case, why give ground to those who disagreed with those decisions and who therefore assume that the procedures for arriving at them must have been flawed?
There was also disappointment for us Blairites when Straw agreed to be Gordon Brown’s leadership campaign manager and to oversee the gathering of enough nominations to prevent any other candidate from standing. Then look what happened: “What I had simply not bargained for was the endemically chaotic way in which Gordon chose to work… The contrast with Number 10 under Tony was striking.”
Then, a mere year after Brown took over, Straw was named in the newspapers as one of those members of the Cabinet who were plotting to remove him. He says that his name was taken in vain by the July 2008 plotters because “I opened up too much” with Charles Clarke and Stephen Byers, “leaving them with the impression that my musings that Gordon would have to go were my settled conclusions. The truth was that I could not make up my mind what the best outcome for the party would be.”
Then he tries to justify his refusal to help get Brown out by saying that, since the war, attempted coups in the Labour Party “had never worked”; not against Attlee, Wilson or Foot. “Tony’s own resignation in 2006/07 was not the result of a putsch alone.” Well, it was, pretty much, and anyway that is not a great argument for keeping Brown.
In January 2010 he and Harriet Harman went to see Brown, but not to “take him out … Harriet and I had already agreed it was too late for that. We simply wanted to spell out to Gordon how he had to change his ways if he was to avoid the most awful legacy of any post-war prime minister.”
Straw’s final attempt to justify his failure to save Labour is equally unconvincing: “Our national defeat was no surprise. It had been inevitable for at least two years.” This recalls Jim Callaghan’s dismal attempt to justify his defeat in 1979 by saying that there had been a “sea change” in public opinion. Straw goes on:
When I first started reading about the 1945-51 Labour government I couldn’t understand why Attlee had felt impelled to call the 1951 general election even though he still commanded a majority of six. The usual explanation given was that he and his government were simply tired out.
I understand that fully now. None of us who served in the 1997-2010 administrations had been under anything like the constant pressure which Attlee and his senior colleagues had experienced. They had been in office not for six years, but eleven, through the wartime coalition… By 2010 New Labour had run its course … We needed a spell in opposition to renew ourselves and our ideas.
No democratic party that is serious about power ever “needs” a spell in opposition. That is always an excuse. He was not alone, of course. He and others should have got rid of Brown and made way for Alan Johnson or David Miliband. It was a sorry end to the distinguished career of a fine reforming New Labour minister.Tagged in: contemporary history, jack straw
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter